Why is Japanese bartending so revered around the world?

  • Food
  • Monday, 08 Oct 2018

Ueno in action during the guest shift at Coley Cocktail Bar. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

Some people get excited over concerts by popular singers. Me? I get excited when legendary bartenders come to town. And when it comes to legendary bartenders, a name that is high on my list is Hidetsugu Ueno, one of the best-known Japanese bartenders in the world.

Ueno is the owner of Bar High Five in Tokyo, and is famous for his expert techniques, which include his signature ice diamond carving and also his famed White Lady classic cocktail.

The 43-year-old bartender was recently in town for a guest shift at Coley Cocktail Bar, as part of the #FindTheLockerRoom bartender collective, along with Colin Chia of Singapore’s Nutmeg & Clove and Nick Wu of Taipei’s East End.

During an interview the day after the guest shift, I took the opportunity to ask Ueno about the Japanese style of bartending, and why it is so renowned worldwide.

What is unique about the Japanese style of bartending?

I’m not sure about unique. It may be unique for the rest of the world, but in Japan, it’s just old-school bartending that has been done for many years. We don’t think it’s unique in any way, because we’ve been doing it for years and years and years, and it’s just what we have to do every day.

Then why is Japanese bartending so famous?

Because we do it in a very different way. Japan is an isolated country that was not influenced by the outside world for many years, so we developed our own style.

Japanese bartenders also don’t travel out of the country because they don’t speak any other languages.

Also, the Japanese bartending style is more master-and-apprentice type of work. Usually you would work for someone and they would become your mentor or master.

What is the first thing you tell young bartenders who start working for you?

Before learning, I tell them it is more important to learn how to make conversation with customers. I don’t have a menu in my bar, so guests have to tell the bartender what they like, and ask questions.

It’s like playing catch ball – the customer asks a question, and I have to throw it back in the right place.

But the younger generation of bartenders now just throw the ball anywhere they want and say whatever they want to say, and don’t answer the question. I always tell them, answer the question first, and then you talk about what you want to talk about.

If we don’t play catch properly, the customer will think that this bartender doesn’t understand what I want. So the conversation is very important.

Ueno says one of the first things a bartender should learn is how to make good conversation with customers. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham
Ueno says one of the first things a bartender should learn is how to make good conversation with customers. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

So a bartender’s job is more than just making drinks?

For me, making drinks is just part of our skill. Of course, our drinks have to be good. But I never hear people talking about the drinks first. They always talk about the atmosphere, the bartenders, and then they talk about the drink. The drink never comes first. Atmosphere, conversation skills ... all these come first.

Me, I prefer a bar with so-so drinks but nice bartenders, rather than a great drink but not so nice bartenders!

I don’t want to go to a place where they are not nice to me, even if the drinks are great!

I don’t drink alcohol, or rather, I don’t drink cocktails. I usually just drink whisky, which I can get anywhere. So why should I drink it at a place where you are not nice to me?

So, it’s very important to be a nice person before being a good bartender.

Why do you think you are so famous all over the world now?

I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I used to live in the United States as an exchange student, where I learnt to speak English, and I was lucky enough to work for someone I could trust, Mr Hisashi Kishi from Star Bar (in Tokyo).

Then I opened my bar, and people started asking me to go and judge competitions, because they usually need someone from Asia. But most bartenders in Japan don’t speak English and don’t care about what happens outside of Japan. So I was very lucky. If I didn’t learn to speak English, I wouldn’t be here!

Japanese barteners tend to have a very good foundation of classic cocktails like the Martini. Photo: The Star/Michael Cheang
Japanese bartenders tend to have a very good foundation of classic cocktails like the Martini. Photo: The Star/Michael Cheang

Bar High Five has consistently been named one of the world’s best bars. How do you feel about that?

All those awards, I don’t really care about them. I’m not working for awards. I’m working for the customers.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that these awards exist, because it is good motivation for the bartending industry in other countries.

But in Japan, we have a mature cocktail culture, and we don’t need all these awards. It brings business, yes, but usually tourists who just want to check out one of the world’s 50 best bars.

I don’t like the kind of customer who just comes to my bar because he wants to post about it on social media, and doesn’t really enjoy my bar. For me, 90 minutes is the minimum time you need to spend in my bar to have the full experience.

Ninety minutes? Why so specific?

If you want to want to enjoy the whole experience, the drinks on the side, making conversation, then you need 90 minutes at least. It doesn’t matter how many drinks you order – you could have one drink and spend 90 minutes there, I don’t care. But if it’s just one drink and 15 minutes, then you only see part of our hospitality.

Bars in Japan are usually very quiet, enjoyable, calming and relaxing. In my bar, you are not allowed to stand, and I don’t take a party that is bigger than four. My bar is very small, and usually big groups don’t really appreciate the drinks, talking to each other and getting too loud.

So making sure the customer has a good experience is more important than making money?

End of the day, money is important, of course, because we still need to make a living. But we also need the courage to NOT serve cocktails to customers. For instance, if someone has too much to drink, I will stop serving him.

You are well known for a cocktail called the White Lady (made with gin, Cointreau, lemon juice and egg white). How did that come about?

For Japanese bartenders, it’s very important to have one of the very popular classic cocktails as a signature. We have bartenders who are called Mr Martini, Mr Gimlet, Mr Sidecar ... I was lucky enough to get the White Lady as my signature cocktail.

Of course, I can make many different drinks, if you don’t like gin, I won’t make you the White Lady! I never push my signature cocktail.

You also travel a lot overseas. Do you learn anything from your travels?

I don’t learn anything from overseas, because I’m not interested in what’s happening overseas. I go overseas to share my knowledge and about what’s happening in Japan. If I try to learn something overseas, they wouldn’t be interested in me anymore! I’m following the typical Japanese traditional bartending style, that’s why they ask me to come. If I’m doing other things, they won’t want me!

Michael Cheang is still star-struck from meeting Ueno-san. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page or follow him on Instagram.

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